The standing staffroom joke for this academic year? #Wellbeing.
We have begun to end every sentence to do with anything other than work with this little phrase: "I'm going to the pub tonight, #wellbeing!", "Not going to do any work tonight, #wellbeing!", "My husband bought me flowers, #wellbeing!"
Now, I absolutely agree that the wellbeing of teachers, leaders and support staff needs to be raised. Teacher retention is dismally low and recruitment is a nightmare, with workload and stress cited often as major factors in the decision of staff to leave.
However, I am becoming increasingly aware that any initiative at all that might be a little bit less arduous than an average day is suddenly being treated as an amazing idea for improving everyone's wellbeing.
Stress and extra workload
Some examples I've heard recently are yoga classes after school, directed time being used for going out for coffee as a team with colleagues and leaders putting chocolates in the staff room. While all these initiatives are nice, that is all they are.
Wellbeing is not about eating more chocolate: in fact, this often isn't what I want at all when I'm feeling burdened at work – and can add an additional burden of feeling like I'm also not even managing to eat healthily.
We are all in school to do a job: teach.
No teacher I speak to is there because they are forced to be – and, to be quite honest – the hours spent at home doing additional work are often optional anyway. What really drives the stress and extra workload are systems that are in place to prove that we are doing our jobs.
So what is the solution? Time. Give us time to do the job we love, time to make more exciting lessons, share resources, plan collaboratively, read the research that costs millions, encourage our colleagues. Stop giving us chocolate and saying well done when I've gone for a walk. Trust us to be professionals and strip back school systems to a point where everyone is able to do their job in a way that works for them.
I choose to be in early to prepare lessons and for my wellbeing. I feel much better about the day if I am well prepared. If I want to stay late to make sure everything is done and work is left at work, let me do that. Shutting school early so I have to take it all home is not #wellbeing.
Here are how I feel schools can really begin to tackle this issue:
1. Flexible working
There has been a lot of discussion recently about how schools are incredibly rigid in the time expected from employees and how far behind they are compared to other professions with regards to flexible working. Leaders can do so much for wellbeing if they allow staff to take a more flexible approach to working hours.
Many teachers who are parents, I'm sure, would be so grateful for being allowed to go and see their little ones in the Christmas show, for example. Could there be more ways than we think to get all the directed time in? We are creative as a profession: let's be more creative about this too.
2. 'Catch them being good'
This is a phrase written into many behaviour policies, but I believe it could really influence staff morale, too.
Did a member of your team make a child's day? Tell them. Take two minutes to pop into someone's classroom and tell them their class are clearly settled and happy this year or send a quick email praising the subject development plan they've spent hours creating.
I'm not just addressing leaders here. It's about being the change you wish to see. If your partner teacher planned a great lesson, say so. If a leader encouraged you, thank them. Build encouragement and praise into your daily interactions with colleagues and – trust me – everyone starts feeling better.
3. PPA freedom
PPA is often a teacher's golden time. It should be protected, however, even if it is, it can often feel as controlled as the rest of teaching time.
Give teachers the freedom to use this time in whatever way they like. If they want to book appointments for that time, go home to work, or use the time for planning, great. I doubt that any teacher I know works less than those hours outside of directed time anyway, so allow it to be completely free and don't monitor it for impact.
4. Cut back on time-sucking systems
Many of our school systems are not making any difference to the children. So, be ruthlessly honest. Teachers spend a lot of time on box ticking tasks that don't actually have a significant impact on learning.
5. Stop pretending good management is a wellbeing initiative
Good communication is absolutely key to the effective running of schools. However, systems that improve communication are not about wellbeing: they are about improving your leadership.
If your staff have access to you regularly and feel like they know what's going on, of course they are going to feel better. This, in turn, impacts directly on wellbeing. However, this is not the same as addressing problems to do with wellbeing. Be clear about why you are making changes. Even if you think it might help with wellbeing, don't make this the party line about why you are doing it.
6. Use the qualified problem-solvers
Wellbeing surveys are bandied about like they can solve all problems. Used well, these will have a huge impact. But, often staff are sceptical about whether this is yet another thing to wave at them as "evidence" that something is happening.
Allow staff time to talk to you – really talk to you – about systems in your school that are not good and could be improved. Teachers are, by their nature, problem solvers. After all, we solve problems from the time we walk in until the time we leave. Therefore, it makes sense to allow your team to share what problems they can see in your systems – and work together to come up with solutions. Allow them to be honest. The fact that the photocopier is miles from the Year 6 classroom might not seem like a big deal. However, it could be having an impact on your Year 6 team. I'm sure they've thought of a few ideas of where it could go instead...ask them.
7. Realise no one size fits all
As we do with our children, we have to realise we are all leading very different lives. Flexible working will look different for a young, single NQT compared to someone coming into the career later in life who has a family.
Some people will need us to say to them "you need to allow yourself not to be perfect" and others will need their focus shifting from the systems they spend hours on, to the children they teach. It won't look the same for everyone, so we must look deeper than "quick fix" wellbeing solutions and truly commit to stopping unnecessary work, dispelling Ofsted myths and building people up.
Let's be clear on what true wellbeing is all about: letting us be passionate about our work, without being told how to use our time.
The writer is a primary teacher in the East Midlands
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